Lake County's rural areas remain vulnerable to wildfires due to very dry weather conditions. (Photo by Steve Schwartz).

CLERMONT – Just a few days after a massive wildfire burned at least 1,200 acres near Clermont, the Lake County Public Safety Department enacted a countywide burn ban, and the agency is urging residents to be extremely cautious.
Very dry weather conditions since last October, combined with that deadly wildfire near Clermont on Feb. 17, convinced his department to issue the burn ban, said John Jolliff, the director and fire chief for the Public Safety Department.
“We went ahead and did it because we had a fire last week down in Clermont, which typically burns every year and was probably started by hunters,” Jolliff said. “They burn it down in the spring so they can clear it and go hunting.”
The fire was so strong that parts of State Road 50 near County Road 561 got shut down on Feb. 17, and signs were posted warning drivers about low visibility due to the smoke.
Jolliff said that wasn’t the only concern his agency had.
“We have a lot of old areas that are former lake beds and things like that, and it’s all dried out,” he said, making them more susceptible to brush fires.
“We wanted to get on top of it because we’re expecting a bad burn season,” he said. “We haven’t had any rain at all, anything significant, so that’s one of our biggest concerns.”
Unusually dry conditions raise the probability of more wildfires, he said, which is why the Public Safety Department issued the burn ban on Tuesday. As part of the order, Jolliff sent out a letter noting that Lake County’s Keetch-Byram Drought Index indicates 39 percent of the county is above 500, and 61 percent exceeds 600. The index has exceeded 500 for more than three weeks, meaning dangerously dry conditions.
The mandatory burn ban affects all of unincorporated Lake County, and prohibits all outdoor burning that has not been specifically permitted by the Florida Forest Service. That includes burning yard waste, and even setting bon fires and campfires on private or county-owned recreational property.
The mandatory burn ban stays in effect until it gets lifted by the Public Safety Department. Any burning within the county is now a second-degree misdemeanor, punishable by up to 60 days in jail and a $500 fine.
But Jolliff said when the bans have been issued in the past, residents have tended to comply with.
“Compliance has been good,” he said. “We have a misdemeanor fine if you do it, but we’ve never had to enforce that. We have gone places where it’s burning, and we go in and extinguish the fire out, but usually it’s accidental, and no one is doing it on purpose.”
But residents also need to understand just how risky it is to engage in any outdoor activities that involve lighting fires — including smoking in a rural area, he added.
“The winds were so strong and steady over the weekend, the area dried out even more,” he said.  “We felt it would be on the wise side to issue the ban and make an awareness of this problem, asking people not to do any kind of yard burning or anything like that.”
It’s a particular challenge in Lake County, he added, because this is a large county geographically — the county has a total area of 1,156.40 square miles – and a lot of rural sections are quite vulnerable to wildfires in the dry season, which doesn’t end until June and the start of hurricane season.
“It’s so spread out,” he said of Lake County. “People own land and they’ve got their structures and houses, and they typically don’t have that much of a problem. What we do is if people are out there with ATVs or something that can set a spark off, we try to make them wise to fire safety issues, and ask them to heed our warnings about brush and things like that.”
Although gas and charcoal grills are still allowed to be used, the public is being urged to keep a constant watch for any stray sparks or embers while cooking outdoors.
The department is also warning about the risk for accidental ignitions through the use of motorized equipment such as all-terrain vehicles and dirt bikes.
Lawnmowers can also pose accidental ignition risks, the department noted, and they recommend that residents reduce the possibility of wildfires by clearing underbrush or debris blown down in storms, since these dry plants and vegetation create more fuel for wildfires.
It’s also recommended that homeowners try to maintain a 30-foot defensible space around their home to act as a firebreak.
“We’ve had some good fortunes,” Jolliff said. “We haven’t lost any houses to a wildfire in a while. If we have a brush fire, we jump on it as quickly as we can.”
But he added that this winter has been possibly the driest he can recall.
“Over the last eight years that I’ve been here, in the last five years we’ve put a burn ban out in the spring because of the dry conditions,” he said. “Without the rain, these conditions have gotten worse, and where we are right now is the worst I’ve seen yet.”
Kelly LaFollette, public information officer for the Lake County Board of Commissioners, said the county government does its best to get the word out to county residents when a ban is issued, particularly those in rural areas.
“We rely on our media outlets to help us get the word out,” she said. “As we know, current dry conditions can change with the rain, and the ban could be rescinded, so we send information out to local newspapers, radio and online media sites, and we put this information on our social media site as well.”
The information does reach residents outside the cities, she added.
“We’ve had people contact us and ask questions about the ban,” she said.
The Public Safety Department has other wildfire prevention tips for residents, including:
• Pruning all branches around your home to a height of 8 to 10 feet.
• Keeping trees adjacent to buildings free of dead or dying limbs and moss, and removing dead branches that extend over the roof.
• Removing all dead limbs, needles and debris from rain gutters.
• Avoiding open burning completely.
• Regularly disposing of newspapers and other trash.
• Raking leaves, dead limbs and twigs and clearing potentially flammable vegetation from around and under structures.
• Storing flammable materials in approved safety cans.
• Keeping items available that can be used as fire tools, such as a rake, handsaw, chainsaw, bucket and shovel.
• Never throwing a lighted cigarette from the window of a car or walking off and leaving a burning cigarette on the ground.
For more information about wildfire prevention, call the Lake County Public Safety Department at 352-343-9458.

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